Promoting Teacher Learning and Improving Instruction: What is the Role of Cross-school Instructional Leadership?

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Principal Investigator
Dr. Qian Haiyan
Director of APCLC,
The Education University of Hong Kong
Professor Allan Walker
Research Chair Professor
Co-Director of APCLC
The Education University of Hong Kong
Funding Source
General Research Fund
Project Duration


Prompted by Shanghai’s performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the past few years have witnessed increased interest in education in the city. The crux of this interest is around what Shanghai schools and teachers are doing differently from other education systems. A key focus has been on its unique teacher learning system. This system recognizes, differentiates, and labels teacher expertise at multiple mastery levels. Expert teachers are either granted titles such as Subject Leaders (xueke daitouren) and Special-class Teachers (teji jiaoshi) or promoted to district-level and municipal-level instructional guidance offices to be Teaching-research Officers (jiaoyan yuan). The formal recognition as ‘expert teachers’ comes with increased leadership responsibility to lead cross-school teacher learning and to initiate instructional and pedagogical improvement. In other words, these formally recognized expert teachers are no longer ‘assets’ just of their own schools; their expertise and wisdom needs to be shared across a wider group of teachers. They function as critical professional leaders and ‘influencers’ to other teachers in curriculum and instruction. They are referred as leaders-as-expert-teachers in this study.

This study will explore the role of the leaders-as-expert-teachers in promoting cross-school teacher learning and instructional improvement. The study employs a case study design. For the study, 12 leaders-as-expert-teachers and their peers will be selected to participate. Data will be collected through multiple rounds of interviews with the 12 leaders and their peers. Supplementary data will be collected from observing the various collaborative learning activities organized by the leaders, and associated documents such as these teacher leaders’ writings and public talks.

This study will provide insights drawn from insiders’ views about one aspect of the success of school education in Shanghai. It will contribute to the knowledge base in three domains: teacher learning and professional development, international understanding of instructional leadership, and educational leadership in China. The research findings will have important implications for teacher learning and instructional improvement practices in Hong Kong and other societies.

  1. To develop a preliminary empirically-based understanding of the mechanism and functioning of the teacher learning system in Shanghai;
  2. To investigate how leaders-as-expert-teachers perceive and enact their leadership roles in promoting cross-school teacher learning and disseminating instructional expertise and explore how their role is understood by their peer teachers;
  3. To explore the characteristics of the socio-political and education systems that facilitate and inhibit the exercise of leadership roles by these leaders-as-expert-teachers; and
  4. To synthesize a set of propositions emerging from the study about the teacher learning system and cross-school leadership strategies that Hong Kong and other societies can learn from the experience of Shanghai.
Expected outcomes
  1. Delineation of the responsibilities and functions of leaders-as-expert-teachers;
  2. Empirical data about how these leaders promote, organize, coordinate cross-school teacher learning and foster instructional improvement strategies;
  3. Explication of meanings attached to the role of leaders-as-expert-teachers in the teacher learning system as perceived by leaders themselves and by their peer teachers who work with them at different schools;
  4. Identification of the social-cultural, systemic and organizational factors that enable and inhibit the leaders-as-expert-teachers to exert their leadership roles; and
  5. A set of propositions about what Hong Kong and other societies can learn from the Shanghai model.
Long-term impact

This study will:
  1. expand the knowledge base in three domains. The first domain is teacher learning and professional development. As Fullan (2012) points out, changing individual teachers will not be enough in the 21st century. Teacher professional development needs to focus on individuals working and learning together through disciplined professional collaboration (Harris and Jones, 2012). However, in reality, teachers have few opportunities ‘to network with peers across districts and local authorities’ (Edge and Mylopoulos, 2008, p. 147). In this sense, Shanghai provides a model of how to establish mechanisms for expert teachers to network across schools and exert leadership beyond their immediate school level. The second domain is international understanding of instructional leadership. The urgent need in today’s schools for effective teaching and learning calls for a distributed instructional leadership model (Spillane, 2012). Findings flowing from this study have the potential to provide empirically based understandings about empowering expert teachers to be cross-school instructional leaders. The third domain is educational leadership in China. The study will provide insights into the unique characteristics of instructional leadership embedded specifically in Shanghai, thus contributing to the still emerging knowledge base of Chinese education leadership (Qian and Walker, 2014; Walker and Qian, 2015).
  2. provide insights extracted from insiders’ views about the success of Shanghai education and help unravel the ‘codes’ of educational processes in Shanghai. That will facilitate a comparison between Shanghai and other high-performing systems in Asia (Hong Kong in particular). As Shanghai and Hong Kong share a cultural heritage, the experiences of Shanghai may hold substantial implications for Hong Kong and for other societies.